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Finding A Topic For A Research Paper

Do not assume that choosing a research problem to study will be a quick or easy task! You should be thinking about it at the start of the course. There are generally three ways you are asked to write about a research problem: 1) your professor provides you with a general topic from which you study a particular aspect; 2) your professor provides you with a list of possible topics to study and you choose a topic from that list; or, 3) your professor leaves it up to you to choose a topic and you only have to obtain permission to write about it before beginning your investigation. Here are some strategies for getting started for each scenario.

I.  How To Begin:  You are given the topic to write about

Step 1: Identify concepts and terms that make up the topic statement. For example, your professor wants the class to focus on the following research problem: “Is the European Union a credible security actor with the capacity to contribute to confronting global terrorism?" The main concepts is this problem are: European Union, global terrorism, credibility [hint: focus on identifying proper nouns, nouns or noun phrases, and action verbs in the assignment description].

Step 2: Review related literature to help refine how you will approach examining the topic and finding a way to analyze it. You can begin by doing any or all of the following: reading through background information from materials listed in your course syllabus; searching the USC Libraries Catalog to find a recent book on the topic and, if appropriate, more specialized works about the topic; conducting a preliminary review of the research literature using multidisciplinary library databases such as ProQuestt or subject-specific databases found here. Use the main concept terms you developed in Step 1 and their synonyms to retrieve relevant articles. This will help you refine and frame the scope of the research problem. Don’t be surprised if you need to do this several times before you finalize how to approach writing about the topic.

NOTE: Always review the references from your most relevant research results cited by the authors in footnotes, endnotes, or a bibliography to locate related research on your topic. This is a good strategy for identifying important prior research about the topic because titles that are repeatedly cited indicate their significance in laying a foundation for understanding the problem. However, if you’re having trouble at this point locating relevant research literature,ask a librarian for help!

ANOTHER NOTE:  If you find an article from a journal that's particularly helpful, put quotes around the title of the article and paste it into Google Scholar. If the article record appears, look for a "cited by" reference followed by a number. This link indicates how many times other researchers have subsequently cited that article since it was first published. This is an excellent strategy for identifying more current, related research on your topic. Finding additional cited by references from your original list of cited by references helps you navigate through the literature and, by so doing, understand the evolution of thought around a particular research problem.

Step 3: Since social science research papers are generally designed to get you to develop your own ideas and arguments, look for sources that can help broaden, modify, or strengthen your initial thoughts and arguments [for example, if you decide to argue that the European Union is ill prepared to take on responsibilities for broader global security because of the debt crisis in many EU countries, then focus on identifying sources that support as well as refute this position].

There are least four appropriate roles your related literature plays in helping you formulate how to begin your analysis:

  • Sources of criticism -- frequently, you'll find yourself reading materials that are relevant to your chosen topic, but you disagree with the author's position. Therefore, one way that you can use a source is to describe the counter-argument, provide evidence from your review of the literature as to why the prevailing argument is unsatisfactory, and to discuss how your own view is more appropriate based upon your interpretation of the evidence.
  • Sources of new ideas -- while a general goal in writing college research papers in the social sciences is to approach a research problem with some basic idea of what position you'd like to take and what grounds you'd like to stand upon, it is certainly acceptable [and often encouraged] to read the literature and extend, modify, and refine your own position in light of the ideas proposed by others. Just make sure that you cite the sources!
  • Sources for historical context -- another role your related literature plays in helping you formulate how to begin your analysis is to place issues and events in proper historical context. This can help to demonstrate familiarity with developments in relevant scholarship about your topic, provide a means of comparing historical versus contemporary issues and events, and identifying key people, places, and things that had an important role related to the research problem.
  • Sources of interdisciplinary insight -- an advantage of using databases like ProQuest to begin exploring your topic is that it covers publications from a variety of different disciplines. Another way to formulate how to study the topic is to look at it from different disciplinary perspectives. If the topic concerns immigration reform, for example, ask yourself, how do studies from sociological journals found by searching ProQuest vary in their analysis from those in law journals. A goal in reviewing related literature is to provide a means of approaching a topic from multiple perspectives rather than the perspective offered from just one discipline.

NOTE: Remember to keep careful notes at every stage or utilize a citation management system like EndNotes or RefWorks. You may think you'll remember what you have searched and where you found things, but it’s easy to forget or get confused.

Step 4: Assuming you've done an effective job of synthesizing and thinking about the results of our initial search for related literature, you're ready to prepare a detailed outline for your paper that lays the foundation for a more in-depth and focused review of relevant research literature [after consulting with a librarian, if needed!]. How will you know you haven't done an effective job of synthesizing and thinking about the results of our initial search for related literature? A good indication is that you start composing your paper outline and gaps appear in how you want to approach the study. This indicates the need to do further research on the research problem.

I.  How To Begin:  You are provided a list of possible topics to choose from

Step 1: I know what you’re thinking--which topic from this list my professor has given me will be the easiest to find the most information on? An effective instructor should never include a topic that is so obscure or complex that no research is available to examine and from which to begin to design a study. Instead of searching for the path of least resistance choose a topic that you find interesting in some way, or that is controversial and that you have a strong opinion about, or has some personal meaning for you. You're going to be working on your topic for quite some time, so choose one that you find interesting and engaging or that motivates you to take a position.

Once you’ve settled on a topic of interest from the list, follow Steps 1 - 4 listed above to further develop it into a research paper.

NOTE: It’s ok to review related literature to help refine how you will approach analyzing a topic, and then discover that the topic isn’t all that interesting to you. In that case, you can choose another from the list. Just don’t wait too long to make a switch and be sure to consult with your professor first that you are changing your topic.

III.  How To Begin:  Your professor leaves it up to you to choose a topic

Step 1: Under this scenario, the key process is turning an idea or general thought into a topic that can be configured into a research problem. When given an assignment where you choose the research topic, don't begin by thinking about what to write about, but rather, ask yourself the question, "What do I want to know?" Treat an open-ended assignment as an opportunity to learn about something that's new or exciting to you.

Step 2: If you lack ideas, or wish to gain focus, try some or all of the following strategies:

  • Review your course readings, particularly the suggested readings, for topic ideas. Don't just review what you've already read but jump ahead in the syllabus to readings that have not been covered yet.
  • Search the USC Libraries Catalog for a good, recently published book and, if appropriate, more specialized works related to the discipline area of the course [e.g., for the course SOCI 335, search for books on population and society].
  • Browse through some current journals in your subject discipline. Even if most of the articles are not relevant, you can skim through the contents quickly. You only need one to be the spark that begins the process of wanting to learn more about a topic. Consult with a librarian and/or your professor about the core journals within your subject discipline.
  • Think about essays you have written for past classes and other coursework you have taken or academic lectures and programs you have attended. Thinking back, what most interested you? What would you like to know more about?
  • Search online media sources, such as CNN, the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, or Newsweek, to see if your idea has been covered by the media. Use this coverage to refine your idea into something that you'd like to investigate further but in a more deliberate, scholarly way based on a particular problem that needs to be researched.

Step 3: To build upon your initial idea, use the suggestions under this tab to help narrow, broaden, or increase the timeliness of your idea so you can write it out as a research problem.

Once you are comfortable with having turned your idea into a research problem, follow Steps 1 - 4 listed in Part I above to further develop it into a research paper.

Alderman, Jim. "Choosing a Research Topic." Beginning Library and Information Systems Strategies. Paper 17. Jacksonville, FL: University of North Florida Digital Commons, 2014; Alvesson, Mats and Jörgen Sandberg. Constructing Research Questions: Doing Interesting Research. London: Sage, 2013; Chapter 2: Choosing a Research Topic. Adrian R. Eley. Becoming a Successful Early Career Researcher. New York: Routledge, 2012; Answering the Question. Academic Skills Centre. University of Canberra; Brainstorming. Department of English Writing Guide. George Mason University; Brainstorming. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Chapter 1: Research and the Research Problem. Nicholas Walliman. Your Research Project: Designing and Planning Your Work. 3rd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2011; Choosing a Topic. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University;  Coming Up With Your Topic. Institute for Writing Rhetoric. Dartmouth College; How To Write a Thesis Statement. Writing Tutorial Services, Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. Indiana University; Identify Your Question. Start Your Research. University Library, University of California, Santa Cruz; The Process of Writing a Research Paper. Department of History. Trent University; Trochim, William M.K. Problem Formulation. Research Methods Knowledge Base. 2006.

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How to Find a Topic for Your Research Paper

Two Parts:Finding a topicChecking the feasibility of the topicCommunity Q&A

Finding a topic for your research paper is probably the most challenging step you can come across while preparing for your paper. With a lot of suggestions and propositions, you are may feel exhausted and “lost” by the breadth of choice. Sometimes, you might be assigned a specific subject to prepare and search by your professor, and even the sources you ought to consult. Then, ho, cheer up! Everything is fine. However, students sometimes have a wide range of choices—most of the time, domains and fields in which they may research a specific topic and, therefore, a specific thesis statement. And maybe none! Either way, this how-to guide will help you to start off devising the appropriate topic, and suggest you the most reliable criteria to select your subject.


Part 1

Finding a topic

  1. 1

    Keep in mind three important yardsticks at all times. There are three yardsticks you can remind yourself of when it comes to selecting a proper subject for your research. These are largely:
    • Being able to handle it;
    • Being eager and excited to do it; and
    • It must satisfy your supervisor.
  2. 2

    Understand these yardsticks. In deciding "whether you can handle the subject", there are certain considerations you have to take into account:
    • 1. First of all, any topic among the ones available/suggested/chosen requires a certain prior knowledge. For instance, you might make up your mind to undertake the Freudian explanation of the motivations of a particular character in a particular novel. Here, you are bound to have a wide understanding of Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis, to say the least. That is to say, your extent of your previous knowledge regarding the topic will have a great deal to do with your potential to handle it within a limited time. Another consideration to bear in mind is the availability of the source material related to your subject. If you don’t succeed in finding the sources needed for a given topic, chances are that there is little sense in tackling it.
    • 2. The second yardstick is "whether you are excited" enough to research your topic. You will research best and write best those papers that are interesting and exciting for you. Then all the steps in the procedure will be performed with zeal and enjoyment. Students fatigue fastest when they are bored or dislike the subject matter, causing them to work most slowly and reluctantly. You don’t want to be bored or mired in something you dislike.
    • 3. The third and last yardstick is "whether your topic will gratify your instructor". Most supervisors will keep in mind, when judging a topic submitted for approval, your ability to do a paper, based on your background and the source material availability. But the instructor has more than this in mind. He or she wants to be certain that the topic proposed is worthy of a research paper. He or she takes into account the level of the scholarship expected from you, the areas of profitable study that exist, and the purposes for assigning a research paper.
  3. 3

    Distinguish between a topic/field of research and theme/thesis statement. The "topic" is the field in which your research and writing will be done. It is the framework of what you are researching. It is “the big picture”; the " theme " is the central statement you will make about the topic. It is, the theme, a hypothesis—a tentative statement—to be established or refuted by the research. It is “the small picture”.

Part 2

Checking the feasibility of the topic

  1. 1

    Do preliminary reading and research. The preliminary reading of sources has three goals:
    • To select the topic you will develop thoroughly;
    • To locate as many sources as possible; and
    • To verify that your research can be performed.
  2. 2

    Read for usefulness at this stage, not depth. Up to this phase, you are not supposed to read every single source carefully and take complete notes. Read here and there in each source material, keeping in mind that you are searching for a topic that can be researched.
    • For example: In preparing for a paper in Media Studies, preliminary reading will help you to to gain an idea about the different theories and approaches via which media texts, for instance, are analysed. Besides, it will help you to understand the most debatable controversies and problems being raised in this realm.
    A sensible way to proceed is to read general academic articles, essays and papers on the subject. Now, you are beginning to see daylight and get down to topics you can handle.
  3. 3

    Narrow your topic down! Break it down, so that you can arrive at a thesis statement. Let’s illustrate this. There are a lot of topics, fields, or frameworks to work on (Literature, Gender Studies, Cultural Studies, Media & Communication Studies, etc.). Let’s take the example of Media Studies. “Media studies” is the big picture. It’s very hard to cover every single detail in Media Studies. That said, you have to narrow that topic down—to break it down until you put your finger on a very specific subject through which you shall build your thesis statement up.
    • For instance, you have made up your mind to research the “effects of T.V.” Your theme is not specific yet. You are bound to keep narrowing it down. You might come to this summary: “The negative effects of sexual imagery of soap operas on Moroccan adolescents”. You should not be satisfied with this, as it is not a well-stated thesis statement. Why? For two reasons: (i) everyone can research this statement and may well reach the same findings. (ii) Though you’ve arrived at this specific statement, you have not taken a stand yet. You need to take it a step further and take a stand regarding your statement. It might sound something like: “The negative effects of sexual imagery of soap operas run on 2M (Moroccan channel) are an outcome of the Eurocentric perception the West holds to spoil the value system of Moroccan adolescents”. See how specific that has become now? Can you see “the small picture” within “the big picture” now?
  4. 4

    Start off the working bibliography. The working bibliography is your own list of works that you think might contain information you will need for your paper. It derives from your reading. On account of it being a tentative bibliography, 3-x-5 Bibliography Cards (also called index cards) should be used. For every book, article, website, etc. encountered, make out a card with the author’s full name, the title of the work, and the place and date of publication. It is important to make a card for every source consulted, even if the source finally is not used in the paper. The working bibliography shows all useful sources consulted whether or not specific material is taken from them. If the working bibliography is kept faithfully, there will be no last minute rushing about to relocate sources.  

  5. 5

    Once your topic has been selected and you have read some general works on the subject, the process of breaking the theme/thesis statement into several subdivisions and headings begins. Whenever you encounter a source with material on one of the subdivisions or headings you made, make out a 5-x-8 note card with the subject heading, a number that will relate this note card with its index card of the source, the page number, and the quotation, in case you quote directly from the source.

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Sources and Citations

  • MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (7th edition ed.). (2009). New York: The Modern Language Association of America.
  • Murphy, E. E. (1985). Writing and Researching Term Papers and Reports: A New Guide for Students. Canada: Bantam Books, Inc.
  • Strunk, W. (1959). The Elements of Style. New York.